Island Grocery and Grill Brings Caribbean Cuisine to Charlotte
Sometimes you need a friend to invite you into a new space. I walked past Island groceries and grills hundreds of times – to and from Aldi, Sherman Branch Nature Preserve and Simmons YMCA – never considering stopping. It wasn’t until a friend raved about their $5.99 lunch special that I made a special trip to the Caribbean Restaurant and Deli on Albemarle Road.
Island Grocery and Grill owner Caroline Coke was born in Jamaica and raised in New Jersey before moving to Charlotte with her husband. “We wanted a place to raise our family – Charlotte has warmer weather and more space – and it’s only a 2 hour and 50 minute flight to Jamaica,” Coke told CharlotteFive.
Before the Coke family opened the grocery store in 2002, they traveled to New Jersey to buy Caribbean food and ingredients. But her husband dreamed of opening a grocery store. The store now houses more jerk seasonings, oxtail marinades and scotch bonnet chili sauces than anyone would ever need.
“Originally, we were just a grocery store,” Coke said. “But we found that people also wanted ready meals, so we’ve found the marriage between grocery and takeout ever since.”
More than food
Sometimes you need a friend to invite you into a familiar space. Every customer who enters Island Grocery and Grill receives a warm welcome. “‘How are you dear?’ “How are the kids? and ‘Happy Mother’s Day!’ filled the air during a recent visit.
“Jamaica – it’s a feeling. The warmth, the people,” Coke said. “We’re trying to make a home away from home – so you feel like you’re in your parents’ kitchen.”
It’s obvious when Coke interacts with a regular. “You want it pepper pepper?” she asked a customer who asked for salt and pepper. “Please tell your mother I said hello,” she said to another customer in Every entry and exit is accompanied by hospitality.
The county of Mecklenburg is home to over 162,000 immigrants. Coke wants to create a comfortable and familiar place for those in the Caribbean. While the grill menu is mostly Jamaican cuisine, she has added dishes such as roti, a common dish in Trinidad.
“During the pandemic, people were looking for comfort food. We provided something stable, something they could relate to. It really helped people weather the storm, emotionally and mentally,” Coke said.
Sharing Caribbean culture
“We originally opened the grocery store to serve the Caribbean community,” Coke said. “However, Charlotte has three direct flights to Jamaica each day, and with more people traveling there and experiencing the culture, more people are finding us here in Charlotte.”
Coke likes to share tips with customers — which spices are best for jerk chicken, which herbal teas aid digestion, and those Angostura bitters — they can help prevent hangovers. She also shares recipes with home chefs who are getting into Caribbean cooking. His sister, Velma Baker, loves serving Caribbean cuisine.
Baker is the chef at the grill – which offers appetizers, sides and baked goods. All baked goods are family recipes made from scratch, including the Jamaican patties. You’ll find classics like beef and chicken alongside more unique patties like jerk chicken and spinach and cheese. The vegetarian patty contains cabbage, corn and carrots; another developing vegetable patty includes curried jackfruit and chickpeas. Additional vegetarian options include vegetarian roti and vegetable stew.
Top-selling dishes include oxtail, jerk chicken and curry; Jamaica’s national dish, ackee and saltfish, is available every Saturday morning. Coke’s background in chemistry sparked his interest in health-friendly beverages, and the deli offers natural juices and herbal teas, including homemade sorrel juice and Irish moss. Sorrel juice is loaded with antioxidants and vitamin C, while Irish moss is high in protein.
However, not everything at the grocery store is health oriented, just like fruitcake which is soaked in rum for at least a year before being baked.
Sometimes a place grows right before your eyes. Island Grocery and Grill is well positioned to grow in the coming years as Coke’s daughter, Abigail, takes over the family business. “We seek to pass the torch to people younger than us with new perspectives and ideas.”
Abigail plans to move to a larger space where customers can socialize. She wants to increase the company’s online presence and has already created a Online Store for groceries. Amid change, however, the soul of the grocery store is firmly established. Customer service, warm welcome and tasty food – it’s all here to stay.
As for the coke? She’s finishing a doctorate in counseling – a job you could say she’s been doing behind the counter for years. “How are you honey? How are the kids? And Happy Mother’s Day!”
Sometimes a new space becomes a familiar space. A friend told me about Island Grocery and Grill last week – and I’ve been there twice already.
Opening hours: Monday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Saturday 9am-8pm